Sunday, November 15, 2009

When Scientists Speak of God

11/15/2009--The following is part of a draft of a chapter in my new book, Higher Law in the Public Square. This section follows a reference to the bleak worldview of Steven Weinberg, to the effect that we live in a cold indifferent universe.

When scientists do use the word God, it seems to me they do so to express an attitude toward the universe quite different from that of Weinberg. Certainly that was true of Albert Einstein in his famous comment about God playing dice with the universe. He did not mean a personal God, like a being, apart from space and time, who could and did intervene to set aside the natural order according to his will. He meant that the universe was an orderly place, with an intelligible structure, one that welcomed human investigation. Einstein may just have been wrong about quantum theory suggesting otherwise.

It is not a “fact” that the universe is a cold, indifferent place in which humans happen to be, by accident. Beings like us, thinking, loving beings, may instead be “inevitable”, as Conway Morris puts it, given the natural processes we know and sufficient time. And if humanity is alone, in the sense that there is no God to talk to, then we are alone in a home well suited to us, where we are meant to be. That is not a bad place to be.

Scientists are tempted to think of the orderly structure of nature as planned. And even to think in God-like terms. Here is how the great physicist Werner Heisenberg put it, with full recognition of the pitfalls of such thinking:

"Was it utterly absurd to seek behind the ordering structures of this world a 'consciousness' whose 'intentions' were these very structures? Of course, even to put this question was an anthropomorphic lapse, since the word “consciousness” was, after all, based purely on human experience, and ought therefore to be restricted to the human realm. But in that case we would also be wrong to speak of animal consciousness, when we have a strong feeling that we can do so significantly. We sense that the meaning of 'consciousness' becomes wider and at the same time vaguer if we try to apply outside the human realm."

And why restrict this sense of fitting order to nature in a physical sense? This is how Pope Benedict, writing before becoming Pope, described the movement from the natural order to the order of natural rights:

"If 'nature' is being talked about here, then what is meant is not just a system of biological processes. …Being is not blindly material, so that one might shape it in accordance with sheer utilitarian aims. Nature bears spirit within it, bears ethical and value and dignity, and thus at the same time constitutes the legal claim to our liberation and the standard for this."

All of this relates to the question before us, the use of the term God. God does not just mean Justice Scalia’s Creator/Ruler. God consist of a family of meanings, of which that is certainly one aspect. But just as important is a much vaguer sense of order and welcome and hope. That is also expressed in the word God. Justice O’Connor was not wrong to say that religious language can be used to express confidence in the future. She was wrong to be so dismissive of it. She was wrong to denigrate its current power. She was wrong to reduce it to Hallmark sentimentality.

Does that render God a universal symbol? No. It clearly does not include Steven Weinberg. It does not include nihilists, relativists, pure materialists, some humanists, post-modernists and on and on. But it does include many nonreligious, nonbelieving persons. It does include many formal atheists, who mean only that the Creator/Ruler God does not exist, not that the universe is alien to us.

So the word God can be used in formulations like In God We Trust, not to indicate that Justice Scalia’s God exists, but that radical trust is the proper comportment of humanity toward reality.

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